Most viewers no doubt realize that the recent Oscar-winning film, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, is based on a stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, but they might be surprised to learn that the Sweeney Todd story predates the musical by over a century. It has been adapted to stage and screen many times, and long before Johnny Depp, the actor who first laid claim to the role was the aptly named Tod Slaughter. The Tod Slaughter Triple Feature, released on DVD yesterday, packages the actor’s 1936 version of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET with two other tales of melodramatic villainy, offering an opportunity to reappraise both Tod(d)s – Slaughter and Sweeney. Although old-fashioned and even somewhat out-of-date, both of them are worth watching if your are a fan of classic horror.
Sweeney apparently began his career in a Victorian Era penny dreadful entitled “The String of Peals: A Romance,” written by Thomas Preskett Prest in 1846. Although Prest may have been inspired by tabloid accounts of a murderous barber, it is not clear that these accounts were genuine. In any case, the story was adapted to the stage the following year by George Dibden-Pitt and presented as “founded on fact.” The tale became a legend, inspiring other stage versions.
In the 20th century, several film, radio, and television adaptations were produced, including one in 1970 starring Freddie Jones (FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) for the ITV series MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION. In this version, Todd’s crimes are revealed to be the delusions of a madman. A few years later, Christopher Bond wrote a new stage version that recast Sweeney Todd as a barber named Benjamin Barker, who returns after a fifteen year exile to seek revenge against the judge who had him wrongly convicted. Bond’s play inspired the 1979 Sondheim musical, which eventually led to the film starring Johnny Depp.
This new interpretation of Todd is radically different from his former self. Although still a murderer whose victims become meat in Mrs. Lovett’s pies, this Todd is an anti-hero rather than a villain, a man with a legitimate grievance who becomes an outlaw because their is no legal recourse against the corrupt judge. The audience is invited to identify with Todd’s quest for retribution, even as it leads inevitably to tragedy.
This is a far cry from the original Todd, who was motivated by greed and lust, not a desire for personal justice. It is this early Todd who is played to hammy perfection by Tod Slaughter, whose over-the-top theatrics peg him as England’s early equivalent of Vincent Price. Born in 1885, Norman Carter Slaughter began his acting career in 1905. After decades of playing conventional leading men, he found his niche as a villain and changed his stage name to Tod. He starred in a series of old-fashioned Victorian melodramas, some with horrific overtones, playing characters like William Hare, the infamous real-life body snatcher, in The Crimes of Burke and Hare. In the early ’30s, he starred in a stage production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, allegedly performing the role over 2,000 times.
After making his film debut at the age of 49 in MARIA MARTEN, OR MURDER AT THE RED BARN (1934), Slaughter went on to recreate his most famous stage role when his partner George King produced and directed a cinematic version of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. Tod went on to play villains in several other low-budget films. Probably the best of these is THE FACE AT THE WINDOW (1939), an atmospheric tale that has Tod as a murderer whose crimes are blamed on a werewolf (actually his deformed twin brother). Also notable is 1948’s THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART; a version of the Burke and Hare story with the names changed for legal reasons, it was scripted by John Gilling, who went on to write and/or direct several films for Hammer in the 1960s. After his movie career dried up due to changing cinematic tastes, Tod continued acting up till his death in the 1950s, appearing on stage and television, even recreating his most famous role as Sweeney Todd for a cameo on a television quiz show, THE PUZZLE CORNER NO. 14.
Slaughter’s place in horror history is tenuous. In A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, author Denis Gifford bestows far more adulation on him than on Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee: “The blood of Victorian melodrama ran red, yet such was the gusto of Tod Slaughter, last in the line of Victorian villains, that his films never offended. Slashing throats or snapping spines, he weltered in his glorious gore, leering and chuckling, winking and nudging his audience to laugh along with him on the road to hell.”
In “Tod Slaughter: Barnstorming Butcher of Melodramatic Menace,” D. R. Shimon claims that the actor “was the first to give British horror movies and thrillers a definable identity, and their first true fan cult, which at a time when Karloff, Hitchcock and their compadres had fled across the great pond to make their fortunes, was what we badly needed.”
On the other hand, The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror points out that Slaughter’s films “are not strictly horror movies” but melodramas or mysteries “with largely theoretical horrors used for melodramatic relish.” It is a point hard to dispute; viewers looking for genuine horror had best look elsewhere. Slaughter’s most overt horror is FACE AT THE WINDOW, which in addition to the phony werewolf also includes a scene wherein a doctor attempts to briefly reanimate a corpse with electricity, so that its hand may finish writing down its murderer’s name. This literal death-bed testimony turns out to be a fake, rigged to provoke Slaughter’s character into revealing himself through an attempt to stop the experiment, but the ghoulish concept still lingers over the film.
Also worth catching is Slaughter’s SWEENEY TODD, if only for the actor’s performance. Viewers familiar only with Sondheim’s take on the character will be surprised to find that Slaughter’s interpretation combines elements of both Sweeney Todd and Judge Turpin, with the barber not only killing his customers for profit but also lusting after a woman young enough to be his daughter.
George King’s film is book-ended by contemporary scenes that portray a modern barber regaling his customer with the story of Sweeney Todd. This device plays upon the legend that Todd was a historical character: The modern barber presents the story as if it were true, but the movie we see represents only his telling of the tale, which neither his customer nor we have any way of confirming.
The bulk of the film is set in the Victorian Era. The story-telling is creaky, and the film is too discrete for its own good. There is one obvious splice, presumably indicating censored footage, when Todd goes downstairs to slice the throat of a victim who has just been tumbled out of the mechanical barber’s chair into the basement below. There are only a couple of hints that his accomplice (here spelled Mrs. Lovatt) is baking the victims into pies: the comic relief character eats one while his comrades wonder where Todd hid the bodies, and in the epilogue the modern day customer wonders whether the guess about the pies was correct (what that guess was is never specified).
Some screen time is wasted on the voyage of Mark Ingerstreet (Seton), explaining how the young sailor earns his fortune and comes back rich enough to marry Johanna Oakley (Lister), the girl on whom Todd has set his eyes. There are some contrived melodramatic capers: Mark almost becomes Todd’s victim, but Mrs. Lovatt (Rho), jealous of Todd’s interest in Johanna, rebels and saves the sailor. Not only does Mark go back in disguise to find evidence against Todd; Johanna disguises herself in clothes borrowed from Tobias (Singer), Todd’s abused assistant, and also heads to the barber’s shop – the only result of which is to nearly get herself killed.
All of this, however, fades to nothing but dim shadows, eclipsed by the glorious villainy of Todd Slaughter. Hardly a subtle actor, maybe not even a very good one, he was perfect in this niche – a conniving, dastardly villain without a shred of conscience or decency, smooth-talking his victims with delicious feigned sincerity until the mask slips, reveaing the devil behind the disguise. “You have a beautiful throat for a razor, sir. Oh, how I should love to polish you off!” The performance very nearly ranks with Bela Lugosi’s wonderful turn as Murder Legendre in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).
As a piece of cinema, the 1936 SWEENEY TODD is a triffle compared to Tim Burton’s wondrous big-budget version, but as a chance to see Slaughter at the apex of his career, performing a far more evil version of the character, it deserves to be seen, and horror fans would be well recommended to give it a gander.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET(1936) Produced and directed by George King. Screenplay by Frederick Hayward and H.F. Maltby, based on the play by George Dibdin-Pitt. Cast: Tod Slaughter, Stella Rho, John Singer, Eve Lister, Bruce Seton, D.J. Williams.
RELATED REVIEWS: Sweeney Todd (2007)